Currie and Smith fought their way to the top, despite being steered away from law and politics

Kathy Huff (from left to right) interviews Barbara Flynn Currie and Mary Anne Smith about their lives and careers as part of OWL’s Women’s History Month celebration. (Photo by Samantha Smylie)

Staff writer

As women who were raised in the 1950s and ‘60s, Barbara Flynn Currie and Mary Anne Smith were told that women should not be in law and politics. However, Currie became a successful politician and Smith became a respected lawyer. During a conversation with the Older Women’s League (OWL), both women talked about their journeys to becoming prominent women in Chicago’s history.

Currie and Smith were invited to celebrate Women’s History Month with the women of OWL at Augustana Lutheran Church on March 2. Kathy Huff, OWL’s publicist, interviewed both women about their pathway to their careers, challenges they faced as women in the workplace and their regrets, if any.

Currie, who recently retired from the State Legislature, was a representative from 1979 to 2018 and Majority Leader from 1997 to 2018. She was born and raised in Hyde Park and received a master’s degree in political science from U. of C.

Currie said that after graduating from college, she knew that she wanted to start a career in public service. She grew up listening to her parents talk about public policy and social justice at home, but she never thought that she would run for public office.

“Having grown up in the benighted 1950s, elective politics was never on my bucket list,” Currie told the OWL audience. “You got the women who were in elective office when I was growing up, (but they) generally inherited the job from a husband who died. Even Olympia Snowe got her political career started when her husband, a state representative, was killed in a car accident.”

Currie was introduced to the idea of running for public office by Michael Shakman. She worked on Shakman’s unsuccessful campaign to be a delegate to the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention. After gaining support from friends and friends, she decided to run for office.

When asked if she wanted to change anything about her career, Currie said: “If I started 20 years later, I would be running for president! I would be Amy Klobuchar’s age. Why not? But, 20 years earlier, when I didn’t even put elective politics on my bucket list, it was a little early to plan to achieve very high-minded things.”

Smith is a lawyer who was born on Chicago’s Southwest Side. She attended St. Rita grammar school and Visitation High School in Englewood. Before becoming a lawyer, Smith was an educator who worked at Queen of Peace, an all-girls Catholic school in Burbank that recently closed, and St. Thomas the Apostle in Hyde Park. Like Currie, Smith never thought that she would become a lawyer.

“My husband, at the time, had a good friend who was taking the LSAT exam and was going to go to law school. It never occurred to me to go to law school, I was a woman in the ‘60s,” Smith said. “So, I just took it on and learned to see what it was like. I got a relatively decent score.”

Afterward, she received a law degree from Kent Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and served for 30 years as an attorney in their legal department, later becoming Vice President and General Counsel. During her time at IIT, Smith volunteered her services at Chicago Volunteer Legal Services.

After retiring from IIT, she became director of the Chicago-Kent Patent Hub, sponsored by IIT. The hub is a legal clinic in Englewood where low-income clients are matched with volunteer patent attorneys to assist them in getting their patents approved. Smith said, “We’ve probably had 500 inventors apply to us and we’ve placed about 100 of them with attorneys. So, far we have 17 patents.”

As one audience member pointed out during the question-and-answer portion of the meeting, Currie and Smith’s stories highlight the education girls in our society receive. Like Currie and Smith, women and girls are steered away from pursuing careers in male-dominated fields. However, both women were able to overcome the challenges that they faced to have successful careers.